Pessimists: Stay Away From Me

Hell-in-a-hand-basket thinking is selfish

Posted Jul 24, 2011

People say the world is going to hell in a hand-basket out of habit. They pretend concern for the greater good, but self-interest is what motivates this blanket negativity about life on earth. Notice how handbasket thinkers sound oddly happy when forecasting doom for the human race? What's up with that?

1. Pessimism is confused with intelligence
People think you're smart when you groan about the state of the world. Focus on the good and fashionable thinkers dismiss you as simple-minded. The hell-in-a-hand-basket habit begins in school, where kids realize that you can get an A without reading the book if you condemn civilization. And the reverse is true, alas. If you are a well-prepared student but you challenge the presumption of what I call "handbasketism," your instructor is likely to to scrutinize and sneer at your work. Most people don't want to risk looking dumb when it's so easy to just go along with the herd's view that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.

This intellectual bias is not conscious. Repetition connects neurons, and the mind flows new inputs through existing channels. Your brain scans for facts that fit the template, and skims past facts that don't fit. Mental templates are hard to notice when they're widely shared. The news media continually reinforce the handbasket view, so everyone around you is focusing on the bad and dismissing the good without realizing it. If you question what "everyone knows" you are likely to be ridiculed, and few people are courageous enough to chance it. Instead, people expect to be admired for their brilliance as they smilingly testify that things will collapse.

2. Fear of death motivates handbasketism
The human mind tries to predict the future to create a sense of certainty. But thoughts of the future confront you with the fact of your own mortality. This is so distressing that the decline of humanity is almost a relief because you won't be missing anything. Louis XIV expressed this feeling when he said "apres moi le deluge" (after me, the flood).
As you get older, it's harder to ignore the certainty of your own demise. It's harder to discuss 50-year energy forecasts without wincing a bit. I think my generation is projecting this anxiety onto the state of the world, and cruelly cramming it down the throats of young people. Handbasketism forces young people to embrace the depressing outlook or be socially shunned. Since social shunning equals death to the mammalian limbic system, that option is depressing too.

3. Being a rescuer feels good
Saving the world is the religion of modern times. The demand for savior-of-the-world jobs is so high that a supply is being created with the illusion that the world is in awful shape indeed. Handbasketism is an addiction. Getting high on the feeling of saving the world is hard to stop though you know you are hurting yourself with the pessimism. Addicts can't bear the thought of life without the substance of choice. How awful would your life be if you weren't focusing on global pandemonium? You'd be obsessing on petty resentment over who got what that you didn't get and how the world isn't meeting your needs as it should. That's what the human mind does.

If you are a handbasketist, your mind may be brimming with evidence of how awful things truly are. Perhaps you are dying to shovel me large loads of evidence for this views. Let's just agree that you are more intelligent than me, and more caring and more invincible. So answer me this: why do you sound so happy when you say the world is going to hell in a hand-basket? Maybe you don't hear that happy tone in yourself, but perhaps you can hear it in others. A stellar example is a recent PT blog by Stanton Peele:
America Is Sinking: Told You So
We are embarked on a precipitous, irreversible decline as a nation.

This is a response to his own post: American Is Already Gone Mr. Peele's glee about being right overcomes the gloom he is pushing onto you. Being right makes Mr. Peele the leader of the pack, and that feels good. Follow Mr. Peele and you can feel superior about being one of those who "get it." Your mammalian brain cares about social dominance as your life depended on it because in the state of nature, it does. Dominant mammals have more surviving offspring than their submissive peers. Feeling superior tells your mammal brain that your genes will survive. This soothes the pain of accepting the inevitable decay of your body and your handbasket.

I hate being surrounded by handbasketism. I want to be surrounded by people who dare to see the positive in the world. But people need a template to organize the chaos of raw detail, so they fall back on handbasketist template because it's available. I decided to provide an alternative, as explored in my book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry​. A simple graphic outlining my positive paradigm is on my website, here